Darwin-L Message Log 1:14 (September 1993)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

Note: Additional publications on evolution and the historical sciences by the Darwin-L list owner are available on SSRN.

<1:14>From davidp@ucmp1.Berkeley.EDU  Sun Sep  5 13:57:00 1993

Date: Sun, 5 Sep 93 11:59:45 PDT
From: davidp@ucmp1.Berkeley.EDU (David Polly)
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Subject: Classification and things that look like flies

I like the group in Lois' chinese classification of things "that
look like flies from far away."  I think this group is still used

I want to add my own opinion on some of the aspects raised by Lois
in her note...

She presented a quote asking,  "IF NEW TAXONOMIES MEAN NEW
RATHER THAT TRUE OR RATIONAL.... "  She expanded this question
to ask whether existing systems of classification enable some ways
of knowing, but prevent others.  These are both very interesting
questions, especially when it comes to zoological classifications
of animals, which are based both on contemporary research and
rules and traditions of legalistic taxonomic priority.  These
two aspects interact in interesting ways...

My own area of expertise is vertebrate, especially mammalian, classification
above the species level.  Since the early 1700's the philosphophy of
vertebrate classification has undergone a number of widespread paradigm
shifts that were mostly prompted by changes in evolutionary paradigm and
by "social" interactions within the scientific community producing
classifications.  On of the most interesting, in my opinion, was what
happened to classification in the last half of the 19th century after
the general acceptance of evolution in the zoological community.
Through that time, classifications of vertebrates went from a
completely heirarchical, nested set of groups to a "graded" classification
in which evolutionary lineages evolved "into" new groups as they changed
over time.  These groups had fuzzy diagnoses and were arranged like
steps on a ladder.  They were a completely new construct--nothing
like them was used before about 1860.  It would appear that this style
of classification had two main goals: to portray groups "naturally"
according to the "laws of evolution" and to make groups more dynamic
in order to convince an unconvinced scientific and public community
of the reality of evolution.  The view of evolution as something
similar to the unfolding of ontogeny, or embryonic development,
inspired a classification based on stages or grades, similar to
stages of an animal embryo.  The desire to demonstrate evolution
by shown that a single evolving lineage "moved" from taxonomic
group to taxonomic group also motivated many of the taxonomists
of this time.

This note could go on forever, so I think I will leave it here
for the moment.  I only want to add that there have been several
paradigm shifts in the philosophy of vertebrate classification since that
time and there is one going on right now as the movement for
a completely cladistic classification gains almost universal
acceptance among taxonomists, especially younger ones.  All of
these movements since the mid-19th century have had as their stated
goal the reconciliation of taxonomy with the fact of evolution, but
they have all gone about this reconciliation in different ways--
usually in ways that were a reaction against the prevailing
paradigm of the day.  In this last respect, the paradigm shift
could be viewed to a greater or lesser extent as a rebellion by
up-and-coming younger scientists against their conception of
the "dogmatic" beliefs of their mentors.  By portraying groups
in new ways and for new reasons it is often possible to make that
which seems old and outmoded new and fresh, even when the actual
changes may be very subtle...

David Polly | Museum of Paleontology and Department of Integrative Biology |
University of California | Berkeley, CA  94720 | davidp@ucmp1.berkeley.edu

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